Monday's Schedule

How About A Skills Competition?

A proposal for next year to keep teams competitive for three days

I have been writing, posting, and tweeting up a storm against pool play, but I feel like it would be unjust of me to lay so much criticism against the association without at least trying to offer something positive in return. So here is my proposal for how to give teams a longer stay in Johnstown, ensure fair and exciting competition, and add some life to the tournament.

In Defense of Pool Play

The association did not venture into some strange, uncharted waters with this year's tournament structure. Pool play is a common method used in other tournaments across many ages and sports. It allows for easier scheduling and it ensures each team gets a minimum number of games. The association should be commended for exploring new ideas for the tournament (especially since so much of it seems to run on momentum and auto-pilot these days) and I hope that the largely negative reaction to this adventure will not stiffle future innovations.

I do think that pool play is fundamentally inferior to bracket play regardless of how many people use it. More importantly, the AAABA has a very long history of double-elimination brackets, and I think that moving away from that tradition is detrimental to the tournament. I won't go into all the details (again) suffice it to say that while pool play may be a good fit for other tournaments, it is not a good fit for the AAABA. Yes, it makes us different from how other baseball tournaments around the country are operated, but I think that's a good thing. There are so many tournaments available to teams, I think it is better to have something unique to offer them than to fall in line with the same humdrum pool play that can be found on any given weekend across the country.

Problem and Solution

From my interviews and from the news I've read, my understanding is that the association felt that potential new franchises were unwilling to join the AAABA because the bracket system only guaranteed two games, whereas other tournaments (using pool play) guaranteed three games. That is a legitimate concern. The association agreed to use pool play to address this concern, but we can see now quite clearly the limitations and disadvantages of pool play: some teams with winning records get eliminated early; some teams with losing records stick around; sometimes it is beneficial to not score runs; sometimes you sacrifice games played with title-contenders for games played with lesser teams. With brackets, winners advance, throwing a game is never beneficial, and every game matters.

Consider that with double-elimination brackets, only four teams risk being sent home after two days. If we want to give them something to do for a third game, what about a four-team skills competition? The winning teams get to continue playing in the brackets (as usual) while the teams who had lost their chance at the championship get to unwind and show-off with a unique event that they may not get to play at any other time.

What a Skills Competition Might Look LIke

The skills competition could be played at the Point Stadium from 4pm to 6pm on Wednesday night, assuming a 1pm afternoon game and 7pm evening game at the Point Stadium, with time for evening game warm-ups. Certainly some fans would make a long day of it, which is great. Others may stay late from the morning game or arrive early for the evening game. Since it is a one-time event each week, people will be draw to it moreso than other games. But what would we do during the event?

A Home Run Derby is the first event that comes to mind, and the thrill of seeing players trying to smash home runs over the Screen Monster or crush them to deep center field has a certain appeal. I think this event in-and-of itself would attract a decent crowd.

 In addition to that, there could be a Pitching Accuracy contest similiar to the NHL's accuracy contest. Pitchers would compete to see who could hit small targets in the fewest number of pitches. Or perhaps a fastest pitch contest measured with a speed gun.

The outfielders could join in the fun with a Strong Arm competition by seeing who could land a ball closest to home plate from centerfield. If not that, maybe a timed relay to see which group of players (outfielder, infielder, and catcher) can most-quickly bring a ball to home plate from the outfield wall.

For the offensive stars, a four-base timed sprint could be in order. Players begin in the batter's box and race around all the bases in the fastest time possible (touching each base, of course). I've even seen international leagues hold bunting contests, with colored rings in the infield to designate increasing point values based on accuracy.

I think that fans enjoy skill competitions. The Major League Home Run Derby is still well-attended, as are the NHL and NBA skills contests. With an energetic on-field announcer, even a bunting contest could be riveting entertainment. Players, too, can enjoy the games either by competing in them or by cheering on their teammates. As an added bonus, maybe we could see a coaches' and managers' dizzy bat race (just for laughs).

If having four out-of-town teams is not enough of  draw, then could consider assembling a local team with players from the other Junior League teams. This way fans not only get a fun show, but also a local team to root for. (I mean, we haven't won the tournament yet, but surely Johnstown could win a home run derby, right?)

Maybe two hours is not long enough for all those competitions. In that case, you could select different contest each year to keep the event new and interesting. By having multiple competitions during the event, there is also now the opportunity for more sponsorships: the Ameriserv Home Run Derby, or the Laurel Auto Group Base Race, or the First Commonwealth Bank Strong Arm Contest (just as examples).

Best of all, this would mean that the tournament could return to traditional bracket play while still providing all sixteen teams with a third day of competition. Between playing a potentially meaningless third pool game on Wednesday in front of a small group of fans at a local field, and playing a competitive skills derby at Point Stadium in front of a larger crowd, I think many players would prefer the latter option.

Better Than The Alternative

I think pool play is messier, less-competitive, and less-fair than bracket play, so I hope the tournament returns to double-elimination soon. But I recognize the association's desire for new ideas to attract new franchises and the desire to ensure them that each team's trip will be worth the time and money. I think that a skills competition is a possible solution to both of these problems, because it allows for bracket play while still giving the early-exit teams a third day of fun and games.

There may be other solutions that would work better, but until those are discovered, I think that this is a good option to explore.

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